Defining Resilience: If I Were FEMA Administrator

Resilience means the ability to quickly recover to its previous status and functionality.

by Eric Holdeman / February 7, 2017

"Resilience” is a word that has been tossed around a lot in recent years. It is the newest term to enter the emergency management lexicon and you find it across the spectrum of thinking about personal resilience, organizational resilience, and I’m sure someone has potentially written about spiritual resilience. All of the above have this sense of being able to avoid a crushing blow, and being able to weather the storms of life or business.

Resilience immediately brings to mind the idea of “springing back” from a state where an organization has been distorted by an event. The ability to quickly recover to its previous status and functionality.

In emergency management terms, many think of resilience as something that kicks in during a post-disaster recovery effort. A community that is resilient is one that rapidly recovers from a disaster.

The fact of the matter is that resilience is more than disaster recovery. It is an overarching quality to our function as emergency managers and emergency management as a discipline.

Since the new presidential administration will bring in a whole new cast of characters, FEMA will have a new administrator. It is during these times of transition that we have seen an “out with the old and in with the new” approach to doctrine.

What I’ve always found interesting was that when I would question FEMA employees about the phases of emergency management, they would always give me the old four “mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.” The bottom line is that they don’t know their own organization’s doctrine, because it has changed so frequently. Instead of calling it doctrine, a better definition might be “current thinking.”

For years, the four phases were: mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. In the George W. Bush administration an effort was made to replace mitigation with the word “prevention,” which has more of a terrorist connotation and is now commonly only applied to terrorist-related hazards. Then in the Craig Fugate era, both mitigation and prevention were included as phases, the word “protection” was included in the lexicon, and preparedness was given the boot.

I’d like to propose a new philosophy and new definitions that are in use today. This change reflects how most emergency managers think about the phases and it incorporates resilience into the doctrine. I suggest that we move preparedness back to being a specific phase of emergency management, and replace it with resilience as the overarching concept for what the four phases are about.

This means that you are building resilience when you have plans in place; when you train people to those plans and in how to respond to a disaster. Resilience is enhanced with an active pre- and post-disaster mitigation program that improves the disaster resilience of a community or organization when potential damages are reduced or even eliminated. Resilience is improved when you can respond quickly and efficiently and save lives and prevent damages by the speed and effectiveness of the response.

Lastly, resilience is evident when a community recovers from a disaster and restores systems and infrastructure so that the community can function again. Ideally, in recovery, you don’t recover only to the previous level of resilience, but look for ways to enhance community and regional resilience and take it to a new level that is improved beyond its previous state.

Note, I left prevention and protection out since both are encapsulated in mitigation measures that are not hazard specific.

I fully expect that there will be changes in wording and definition in the coming months and years as new leadership begins to make its presence known. You never know, another totally new word may be introduced into our dictionary of terms based upon events and who takes the reins of FEMA. 

Platforms & Programs